Caesar's Dream

Thursday, March 24, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Having enjoyed Pisa's beautiful sights, we pulled out the Italian map to make plans for Florence, our next destination. We knew it was a large city with a population over 350,000, and we knew it wasn't far away, but we could not locate it on the map. Finally we seized on a city named Firenze and decided to go there instead.

OK, not really, but we certainly did wonder how the English name for this historic city steered so far from its Italian name. If the English version of Roma is Rome, Pisa is Pisa, Milano is Milan and Napoli is Naples, how did we get Florence out of Firenze (fee-REHN-zee)?
It all goes back to the Latin.  Turns out Julius Caesar founded this fair city in the year 59 B.C. and named it Florentia (the flourishing), hoping no doubt that its name would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Many centuries later, his plan worked out well.

Lorenzo il Magnifico
A century or so before Christopher Columbus from neighboring Genoa headed across the ocean on a whim, the Medici family rose from their humble Tuscan roots to become wealthy bankers and set their sights on what was then the Republic of Florentia, eventually becoming rulers of the republic.  In 1469, Lorenzo de' Medici came into power, and it was his love for and patronage of the arts that secured Florence's place in history.  Lorenzo commissioned many works by such artists as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli.  An accomplished musician, Lorenzo also brought the world's most renowned singers and composers to Florence.  Still known in Florentine history as "Lorenzo the Magnificent" (Lorenzo il Magnifico), it was under his hand that the stage was set for Florence to earn its title as the Cradle of the Renaissance.

The centerpiece of Florentine Renaissance architecture is the city's domed cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore.  Six hundred years after it was completed in the 1400s, the cathedral's dome is still the world's largest dome built of brick and mortar. The exterior of the cathedral is made of marble panels in various shades of pink, green, and white.
Santa Maria del Fiore
Also in Caesar's flourishing city is the Uffizi Gallery, completed in 1581.  With sculptures and paintings by many of Lorenzo's beneficiaries, the Uffizi is one of the world's most renowned art museums.  Some of the works have been on exhibit there for 500 years.  In addition to the exhibits, the building itself is a work of art with intricate ceiling frescoes and gilded decorations throughout.  Though it generally recommended to schedule an appointment to visit the Uffizi, we were fortunate enough on this day in March to walk in and purchase a ticket for immediate admission.  Of course, no photos are allowed in the museum, but take our word for it, this museum is spectacular.


Outside the Uffizi is a popular place for human statues and mannequins to ply their trade.  Not surprisingly, the ones who put more effort into their costumes and set see more benefit from tourists.  The guy dressed in white the day we visited actually looked like a statue and would pose lovingly with tourists who approached him, while the guy with the moon face was more interested in the coins dropping in his collection box.  Another person just had a cheesy pharaoh mask and gold lame gown and wasn't getting too much attention.  Little wonder when he lifted his mask from time to time to count his take.
As we are prone to do, we stumbled upon an interesting cemetery in Florence.  We had trekked to the top of a hill above Florence for the view (pictured above), which happened to be at the Basilica of St. Minias on the Mountain (Basilica di San Miniato al Monte).   Minias, a Greek merchant is said to have been Florence's first Christian martyr.  Settling in the hills of Florence in the year 250, Minias was beheaded for his beliefs.  After his death, legend holds that he picked up his head, crossed the Arno River, and returned to this hill where he had been living as a hermit.

A shrine was later erected on the spot, and by the 8th century a chapel had been built.  The current church was begun around 1090 and not completed until the 1200s.  The bell tower dates from 1523, and in 1530 Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo) had it covered with mattresses to protect it from enemy fire when Florence was under siege by the Spanish.

The adjacent cemetery, the Cemetery of the Holy Doors, wasn't established until the 1860s.  Among hundreds of elaborate tombs here are the graves of many famous Italians including Carlo Lorenzini (author of Pinocchio) and numerous politicians, musicians, artists, and writers.  The cemetery is populated with stunning sculptures.
In addition to the expected angels and lambs, dozens of sculptures of the deceased decorate the graves, including many finely crafted busts and heartbreaking depictions of children who died much too young.

Julius Caesar was right.  Thanks to Lorenzo the Magnificent and others who came after him, Florence has indeed lived up to its promise as a flourishing center of the arts, known today as Italy's art capital.

Florence Stats:
Population:  368,362
Founded:  -59
Museums:  >70
Medici palaces:  8
Bridges over the Arno River:  8
Bridges destroyed in WWII:  7
Bricks in the cathedral's dome:  >4,000,000

By Our Count:
Jewelry stores on the Ponte Vecchio:  53
Paintings:  18,420
Sculptures:  13,829